What is it?
Blogs are a collection of posts, often multimodal, published collectively online. A blog can have a single author, or many, and can be narrow or broad in the topics it covers, but nearly all blogs allow – and indeed, encourage – readers to contribute comments on the materials they contain.
What have people said about it?
Writing scholars often point to blogs as an excellent way to push students towards conscious reflection about rhetorical decisions and the writing process. In her article “Metaspace: Meatspace and Blogging Intersect,” rhetoric and composition scholar Elizabeth Kleinfeld shares that “a majority of my students admit that they’ve glossed over thinking and writing processes to spend more time on writing products to ensure good grades. Blogging helps to counteract the tendency to gloss over the thinking and writing processes by putting those processes on display” (Writing and the Digital Generation 230). Charles Tryon agrees, saying in Pedagogy that blogging provides a way “for students to take charge of their writing, to provide them with a sense that writing matters” (128).
Additionally, scholarly conversation locates blogging as an excellent tool to bring distance or online learners closer both to each other and to the act of learning (Glogoff, Clark and Mayer). By providing a tool to nurture personal and academic bonds that falls outside the direct purvey of the academic – since most blogs are hosted by platforms not directly affiliated with the institution – blogs can lessen the gap between students and the distance environment in which they’re learning.
What kinds of things can I do with it?
Blogging is a highly versatile tool, and can be used in a wide range of different ways. Students can be asked to keep individual blogs, where each student has their own blog that they curate and update individually. Individual blogs can lead students to a stronger sense of ownership for their writing, since they themselves are the only people with control over the space. Individual blogs also offer opportunities beyond simply the content of each post. Depending on the way the assignment is framed, individual blogs can ask students to consider purpose, visual design and other aspects of composing. For example, students could be required to choose a theme or topic around which to base their blog entries for the semester, and to design a visual layout that effectively complements their topic and personal style. Because each student has control of their own blogging space, they can experiment within their own blog while still interacting with their classmates through the comment function provided by virtually all blogging platforms.
Blogging can also be used as a curated collection of relevant material students find outside of class. Platforms like WordPress and Tumblr make it easy for students to repost links to articles and other artifacts they find online; collecting such material in a class blog (with or without additional written commentary) offers a way to keep students thinking about class ideas outside the classroom, and to connect other ideas or events back to the course. For example, in a writing course with a space and place theme, students might be assigned to post several relevant links each week, with brief commentary on how they found them and how they see them connecting. In this way, the class can trace the spread of the ideas from class across outside boundaries. Encouraging students to post outside material can also help prevent them from relying solely on text-based composing in their blogs, and instead incorporating other media into their writing.
And though blogs can allow for a lot of freedom, instructors can also (either on occasion or for all entries) provide specific tasks to students that push them to capitalize on the affordances of the form. Rather than writing a review of a campus event, for example, students could be asked to pos a series of short videos taken at the event to give their overall impressions. Students can also be encouraged to play to their strengths – by allowing a more open set of guidelines for posts, those with artistic skills can create images, while those more comfortable or capable with words can post verbally.
Why might I want to use it in my class?
Blogging is a great way to give students the opportunity to write for real audiences. Whether or not they end up with an audience outside of their instructor and classmates, the presence of the writing online provides a real sense of stakes for the audience, making it a good way to teach awareness of audience and to work on making appropriate rhetorical choices. And because the blog form is so loose – blog entries come in all lengths, modes, forms and subjects – it’s possible to extend a great deal of choice to students while still providing specific guidelines for assessment. For example, students might be assigned to write one post and two comments a week related in some way to the course topic – but within those guidelines, students may choose to post in whatever form or style they imagine, giving them a chance to identify and engage more deeply with the assignment.
Having students contribute to blogs – whether it’s a single class blog or individually curated ones – is also a great way to facilitate conversation through writing. While many schools offer institutional spaces for online discussion, such as Blackboard, using outside blogging sites can create a more familiar and comfortable, less institutional feel to the activity that leads to greater engagement. Adding a discussion component through blogging can enhance students’ sense of ownership in the conversation, since it’s taking place in a setting they are more familiar with – and in which they hold more personal stakes.
Finally, there’s some strong evidence that students enjoy it. A 2008 joint study by the University of Melbourne and Griffin University found that of the digital activities students engage in on a daily or frequent basis, blogs were among those they most desired to see incorporated into their classrooms.
Blogging as a Joint Venture: Laurie McMillan and Lindsey Wotanis
To help give a sense of the many varied and creative ways blogging can be adapted to different instructional needs, Laurie McMillan and Lindsey Wotanis offered to share their experience using blogs across two different classes – an English class taught by Dr. McMillan and a Communications course taught by Dr. Wotanis – during a study abroad experience in Ireland. Both instructors work at Marywood University in Scanton, PA.
Tell us a little about the class in which you used this assignment. What kind of atmosphere did it have? What kind of group was it overall?
Our blog, “Encountering Ireland,” (www.encounteringireland.wordpress.com), was a joint venture among two classes studying abroad together in Ireland in the summer of 2012. In the first course, “ENGL 399: Special Topics/Place-Based Poetry and Film,” taught by Laurie McMillan, Ph.D., associate professor of English, students examined Irish poetry and film, while writing and producing creative, place-based works of their own while abroad. The second course, taught by Lindsey Wotanis, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication arts, “COMM 448: Creating Community through Story,” was centered on the way community journalism can help to foster a sense of place-based community. Students enrolled in this course wrote and produced feature stories and multimedia on people they met and the places they visited while abroad. Both courses were complementary in design and scope, and the blog project allowed students–most of whom were enrolled in both courses–to explore their own experiences through writing while simultaneously publishing their work for a greater audience.
Because this project was executed in the first iteration of these study abroad courses, the class sizes were small, and several of the students enrolled were non-traditional students. Six students traveled to Ireland, though only five were enrolled in each course. The size of the classes and the fact that they were taking place in the summer–and partly abroad–made the environment more relaxed; this allowed for us to experiment with a new digital tool in a collaborative way.
Tell us a bit about yourselves as an instructor. What’s your teaching philosophy in a nutshell? What most defines your approach to instruction overall?
We have similar teaching philosophies, which allowed this collaborative project to work well. In a nutshell, we both believe in a hands-on approach to coursework, which is whenever possible designed with real audiences in mind. When students write for real audiences, the writing experience is more authentic and helps them to connect their assignments with the world beyond the classroom walls. Requiring students to conceptualize and write pieces for publication meant that students needed to think critically about the rhetorical situation.
We also believe that writing is a process of revision and exploration. The work that the students did on the blog allowed them to post a mix of polished and unpolished writing, but always with a particular audience in mind.
How would you describe your experience/comfort teaching with digital/technology-based materials?
We had both experimented with digital tools in previous courses. Lindsey used WordPress as a publishing platform for a news reporting courses in the spring of 2012. In that course, students spent an entire semester researching, reporting, and writing about hunger in the Scranton, PA, community. During that process, they worked together to design the platform on which they would publish their finished news reports. Throughout the process, the students contributed more traditional blog posts, where they wrote about what it was like learning about local hunger. The finished product, a site called “Hunger Bites,” was presented to the Marywood community at the conclusion of the semester.
Laurie had used WordPress to create a personal vlog, “Laurie Mac’s How To,” where she would post How-To videos on random things, like “How to give a swell bar toast” and “How to speak whale.” But, she had never attempted to use WordPress in class.
In short, we both had some comfort level with WordPress as a publishing platform, but by no means were we experts. However, we were confident enough in our technological skills to take a risk with the philosophy that whatever we didn’t already know, we could probably find out with a little time and effort.
How did you develop and apply this assignment in your class? What were your specific objectives in designing the assignment?
As we developed our courses, we made sure our assignments were complementary. The blog became a space for students who were enrolled in both classes to make connections across the two disciplines, and students who were enrolled in just one class were fully connected to the larger group of travellers.
Both classes focused on place, with Lindsey taking a journalistic approach and Laurie taking a literary approach. The blog allowed students to explore ideas of place as they posted informal reflective videos and essays that connected their experiences to poems and films they had analyzed. The blog also provided a space for formal publications: a collaborative video, photo essays, polished poetry, and human interest profiles of community members they had interviewed while in Sneem, Ireland. In all of these assignments, the blog helped students to be aware of audience and the ways place and story link to community–a key idea in both of the classes.
In addition to serving student learning outcomes, the blog helped class members to keep in touch with family and friends while traveling, and it has since served as a recruitment tool as Lindsey and Laurie plan the next study abroad experience.
How did you customize it to fit your particular course, students, and abilities as an instructor?
Blogging worked well for both classes because it allowed for ongoing informal writing and videography, and it also provided a space for polished writing and videography to be shared with a public audience. For the blog to serve these purposes, we began working on it with the class before travelling, we all added to it while abroad, and students revised and published polished work through collaborative efforts once we had returned to campus.
The main page of the blog was maintained by Lindsey and provided a chronicle of travel experiences. The final entry was the polished collaborative video students produced. In addition, each student and teacher maintained his or her own page that was linked from the main page with tabs and drop-down menus at the top of the blog’s main page. This set-up allowed for differences, yet we also set up regular standards and systems (such as dating posts and crediting photos) so that the pages would reflect some consistency across the site.
How did it go? What worked well? What are some of the best things to come out of this work? What was the most challenging or confusing for you and/or the students?
Most of the blog experiences were positive. It worked well to bring together informal and polished publications, individual and collaborative writing, student and faculty work, and two distinct classes with complementary aims. We also were successful in spending some class time guiding students through the technological challenges of blogging since several students were doing so for the first time.
Overall, the blog worked well to capture the study abroad experience for us as teachers, for our students, and for other, less-defined, audiences. Students presented their work successfully to public audiences on two occasions, and the common online space of the blog has served to mirror the themes of place, story, and community that informed both Lindsey’s and Laurie’s courses.
The most challenging part of blogging while travelling was the unreliability of internet connections. We needed to be flexible with due dates and support students as they dealt with connectivity issues.
What advice would you give to other instructors considering a similar assignment (/project/lesson)?
It’s probably a good idea to familiarize yourself with the platform before you ask students to work with it. This doesn’t mean becoming an expert, but it does mean that you should know how to troubleshoot when questions arise. Know what the platform can and can’t do before you decide to implement it into your course, and make sure that it is suitable for your course goals and objectives.
Then, go for it! Experimenting with new technologies is usually a learning process for both students and teachers, so approach it that way with your class. Tell them you’re no expert. They’ll respect you for it and usually jump on board so you can learn together. (And, it usually makes them feel good when they’re able to figure out a solution to a problem before the instructor!) Realize that there will be bumps along the way, but the bumps are the learning moments.
It’s also a good idea, especially if your students are really unfamiliar with the digital platform in question, to dedicate a good portion of class time to hands-on workshops. That way, you can go over some of the basics that students will need to know before they begin, and you can troubleshoot together when problems arise. They don’t usually appreciate being left to their own devices, so work through kinks as a group rather than expecting students to figure it out as they are working on homework.
And, if you’re going to experiment, do it for the first time with a small class, if possible. This is just easier logistically and will allow for more collaboration and hands-on experience.